Middle Passage, Johnson’s third published novel, is a complex blend of allegory, adventure story, tall tale, and philosophical meditation. The novel won the National Book Award. It follows the misadventures of Rutherford Calhoun, the narrator, who is an entertaining liar and consummate rogue. Calhoun, a slave, flees first to New Orleans and then, to escape marriage, to sea. Ironically, he stows away on a slave ship, the Republic, and so his adventures begin.
The novel’s characters are a motley collection of freaks, misfits, and oddities. Ebenezer Falcon, captain of the Republic, is a stunted, twisted dwarf whose brilliant mind and strong will are devoted to his own evil ends. Cringle, the first mate, is a well-meaning but ineffectual liberal, able to perceive evils and injustices but incapable of acting to resolve them. Josiah Squibb, the alcoholic, often-married but never-divorced cook, serves as a representative both of humankind’s baser instincts and of rough but necessary common sense.
In Africa, the Republic takes on a cargo of slaves from the Allmuseri tribe (a group frequently mentioned in Johnson’s fiction as a symbol of original African nature and unity). The crew also brings on board an enormous box that contains the Allmuseri’s “god,” a monstrous shape-shifting creature that drives mad those who listen to it.
On the return voyage, a mutiny and slave revolt, perhaps...
(The entire section is 417 words.)